Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
is a historical novel about a real woman, Elizabeth Keckley, a former
slave whom Mary Todd Lincoln hired to sew her gowns and who became Mrs.
Lincoln’s confidante and close friend. If you are interested in reading
about Mary Lincoln, she is the focus here — although the portrait is
not eye-opening. It adheres closely to the difficult, mercurial Mary
Lincoln of other accounts. A difference perhaps is that it is
sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln, understanding the intense strain on a
woman who lost three children; was suspected of Confederate sympathies
on account of her Kentucky roots; was shunned as a Western hick by
Washington socialites; and incurred a mountain of debt by spending on
White House restoration and on herself.
If your interest is more in Elizabeth Keckley, you may finish the book thinking she seems unreal. The facts of her life are there: a son fathered by her master, a broken marriage, buying freedom for herself and her son, her rise as a dressmaker to the elite, her soldier son’s death, employment by Mrs. Lincoln, naively writing a book that Mrs. Lincoln considered a betrayal. Chiaverini paints Keckley as pretty much flawless, however, and doesn’t get inside the character. This is more history than novel, and if you’re okay with that, you may enjoy it.
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